by Kristin Brighton on November 23, 2011

What a difference two decades make! Last Thursday, as a member of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, I returned to my high school alma mater to participate in the first ever Principal for the Day event. This was a partnership between USD 383 and business leaders to help the community better understand what is going on in our local schools.

As an MHS graduate, I decided it would be interesting to shadow Principal Terry McCarty. I did this because I was curious to see the changes the school has experienced through the recent renovation project, but also because over the nearly 20 years since I graduated from MHS, I’ve heard many people make negative comments about the school. And as a proud MHS graduate, those comments raised my hackles — I didn’t want to believe things could have changed so much.

Kristin and MHS Principal Terry McCarty

I hear repeatedly from people in the community that we need two high schools. Frankly, I haven’t been convinced of this argument. People have been saying that for decades. Today’s MHS West has a much smaller student population than we had 20 years ago, because the ninth grade is now located in the old middle school. So, I thought I’d see for myself the status of today’s secondary education in Manhattan.

After spending a day alongside Principal McCarty, I’m certain that today’s MHS is a school people can be proud to send their children to. From what I saw last week, things seem to be running pretty smoothly right now.

As I shadowed McCarty, the biggest change I noticed was how the principals interact with their students. Instead of being “the law” like principals were in my day, today’s principals interact with students more like a mentor. They approach their jobs with the philosophy that most of the time the students know right from wrong — but occasionally they slip up and need some coaching. Instead of setting the tone that the students should avoid administrators, the administrators strive to interact with students. They know their names. They spend time with them. They talk sports with them. Throughout our day, kids kept coming up to McCarty just to say “hi” or to ask for his help with a minor problem.

What impressed me with each interaction wasn’t WHY they approached him — it was that they felt they COULD approach him. They were reaching out for his help because they knew they would receive it.

Kristin tours high school renovation and expansion areas

Now, don’t get me wrong. MHS today isn’t a utopia. McCarty is still dealing with problems that all high schools have faced for years. Kids are still experimenting with smoking and alcohol, their parents’ prescription drugs, and skipping class. Families are just as mixed up and confusing as ever. For every helicopter parent, there is another who is as equally absent. But as the principal, it is McCarty’s job to crack down when needed, and then make sure they are getting the help they deserve.

Whether he’s making an administrative decision or overseeing a home football game, McCarty approaches everything he does with the belief that striving to personalize education is the way to make students succeed in a large school. This is both his mission and the theme of his Ph.D. dissertation at K-State. He believes this mission is possible and he’s doing what he can to show others how to do it, too.

Does MHS need a second high school? After spending $37 million updating a building that needed love two decades ago, I think we are a few years away from this step. McCarty says that if the population grows so that we have another 300-400 students enrolled at MHS, we might not have a choice. Voters are going to have to be aware that if NBAF actually causes the community to grow as it is expected to, another high school is inevitable. So, we’d be wise to do some planning now. But until we know for sure that’s going to happen, I think we should be proud of the school we’ve got.

Kristin meets with library staff

Principal McCarty knows that while some kids are qualifying as national merit scholars and passing AP tests at ridiculous levels, others are trying to overcome challenges and scrape together enough credits to graduate. And that’s OK. It is the responsibility of the school system — and the community — to do everything we can to help kids on both ends of the spectrum meet their goals. And from what I can tell, THAT is currently being achieved.

Thank you, Principal McCarty for all you and your staff do to improve life for the youth of our community. I appreciated the opportunity to see for myself that Manhattan’s kids are in good hands.